It began innocently enough, clinging to the walls of my shower in countable strands—a few over here, five or ten over there. Probably that new clarifying shampoo making my scalp react, I reasoned to myself. Then, over a matter of weeks, the strands amassed into tiny, ropelike clumps that would encircle the shower drain. And once I saw a couple of hairy tumbleweeds blow around in my kitchen (of all places!), the dull panic I had been carrying around for weeks instantly felt sharp. “Is everyone’s hair falling out lately, or is it just me?” I posed to my modest following on Instagram. What I got in return was an emphatic “Yes!” and “What in the actual hell is going on?”
I still don’t know the answer to that question but what I have learned is that I’m not alone. And that means you aren’t either. We’re all experiencing some level of hair loss right now and unless your hair has completely ceased growing or you can see the curvature of your scalp through thinning patches, you’re probably going to be okay.
When I recently asked Ayurvedic practitioner Dr. Amrit Devgun if my fallout was due to a recent case of Covid; weaning my toddler from breastfeeding; stress from balancing work, life, and motherhood; or simply because of the season, her response was …. yes. “There is no one reason; there are multiple reasons and it’s amazing how each person is so different from each other,” Devgun says, a naturopathic doctor who practices at Northwestern Health Sciences University’s Bloomington Clinic. “For some, it might be addressing vitamin deficiencies and for others, it might be addressing inflammation.”
Since hair loss is largely circumstantial, it’s hard to pin it down on any “one” thing (unless you’ve been diagnosed with an underlying autoimmune condition). Drawing from her Ayurvedic background and naturopathic expertise, Devgun weighs in on some of the most common culprits out there.
Cycles + Seasons of Hair
It isn’t like clockwork, nor does it encompass our entire head of hair, but at any given time we’re experiencing one of three phases of the hair growth cycle: anagen, catagen, and telogen. Anagen is the longest phase, lasting 3 to 5 years on average, where follicles push out hair that will continue to grow until they’re cut (or fall out on their own). Around 90 percent of the hair follicles in our bodies are in this phase. In catagen, hair follicles shrink and growth production slows to a halt—this usually takes a couple of weeks, and accounts for only 5 percent of our total hair. Lastly, telogen (the “resting phase”) means that an estimated 10 to 15 percent of hair will shed to make room for new hair follicles, a necessary part of maintaining a healthy scalp and hair.
These phases are why we see a visible trail of hair following us around the better part of our days—it’s normal to lose between 50 and 100 hairs a day! (And when your hair is long and/or has dark pigmentation, it can look double this amount.) The American Academy of Dermatology Association is here to remind you that shedding is not a sign of hair loss.
But even with this accepted fact in hand, there are external (and internal) factors at play that can exacerbate hair fall. Things like seasonal dynamics, according to Ayurveda wisdom, can have a harsh effect on skin—impacting the health of our scalp, our hair’s support system. “There’s heat in the summer and dryness in the fall and when you combine the two to make ‘dry heat,’ it wipes everything out—just look at the wildfires in California,” says Devgun. “From a seasonal perspective, we see a lot more hair loss this time of year.”
Summer is the season of pitta, the energy of fire and water, digestion, and transformation. Manifestations of blood heat caused by excessive pitta look like poor cellular turnover, dry and brittle nails, and red or irritated skin. If you find yourself scratching or picking at your scalp, Devgun suggests incorporating a topical oil into your haircare routine that includes Bhringaraj, a natural Indian herb that reduces inflammation. “Make sure it’s slightly warm in your hands, and apply it to your scalp at least once a week. Most absorption takes place pretty quickly—rinse it out with warm water or follow that up with a shampoo,” Devgun advises.
Covid or Stress? Take Your Best Guess
Even though it takes up all that space in our heads, stress isn’t just confined to our mental capacities—it is, Devgun says, a domino effect that can lead to physical effects with very real (and sometimes very devastating) consequences. “With stress, our inflammatory markers increase. The neurotransmitters that get released can impact the hair shaft protection, which can go on to expedite hair loss,” says Devgun. “[With patients we treat] we make sure we’re addressing protein deficiencies, mineral and vitamin deficiencies, and we’re making sure that person is getting sleep.”
Devgun says that just like there’s a gut-brain connection, there’s also a skin-brain axis where the brain responds to external stressors (like tension, heat, cold, and pain) in ways that can negatively affect skin’s permeability barrier function. It all makes sense when you consider that skin is the largest organ of the human body. That hair oiling treatment she mentioned? Not only does the oil contain cool and calming components, the actual practice of massaging it into your skin feels meditative, naturally bringing your heart rate down and offsetting adrenaline surges. Even if for a moment.
Touting the importance of destressing is easier said than done, but finding our calm won’t just potentially save our tresses, it can help build immunity and resilience—Covid’s biggest threat. “When people hear the word ‘Covid,’ we immediately go into this emotional stress response,” says Devgun. “There’s the stress of the pandemic and the anxiousness of our political situation and on top of all of that, if a person hears that they have Covid, the stress is just immediate.”
Devgun says it’s because it’s a new disease with so many unknowns, so it’s only natural to have these cascading worries. She adds, “even if someone doesn’t develop a fever or major side effects, there’s this underlying anxiousness where you’re constantly thinking: Am I going to be okay? Is this going to get worse? It’s just that we’ve experienced so much loss.”
And then, of course, there’s the (very real) fear of losing our hair post-Covid, thanks to a surge of articles and headlines pointing to this as a developing side effect. Devgun says this is the perfect opportunity to remember that viral illnesses and fevers have always played a role in hair loss; this isn’t new news. “Normally, a viral illness will precipitate hair loss because of the fever,” she says. “Then on top of that, the inflammation that Covid causes is like a double whammy.” Devgun says she’s seen long haulers in her office with hair loss, muscle and joint pain, and unremitting fatigue and brain fog. She says it’s key for her patients to learn healthy stress management strategies. “Not only are we trying to support a healthy inflammatory response, we want them to know that they are safe in their body, and know deep down that they’re okay or are going to be okay.”
It Will Grow Back
When hair loss strikes, we should—to an extent (!)—surrender to it, acknowledge that it’s happening, and remind ourselves that this is only temporary. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be more intentional about our health and how we live. Devgun culled together a few take-home tips to consider if your brush is looking a little fuller these days.
Eat more protein. “If your GI is a little off, skip the chicken for a while and try protein powder, which can be easily digested. Your body can pull it in and absorb it very quickly.”
Bet on those B Vitamins. “When we have stress, we’re using up a lot of our B Vitamin stores.” She says Biotin is fine, but keep the dosage in check—we don’t need as much as we think.
Up your zinc intake. “Zinc is important for hair, skin, and nails, and it’s important for our immune systems. When your body is trying to fight a virus, you overuse your zinc quota.”
Get your iron, thyroid, and hormone levels checked. “This is just low-hanging fruit. There are a few different markers your doctor can look for.” Actual, detectable blood tests and labs that can be easily traced back to your hair loss.
Located in Bloomington, Northwestern Health Sciences University is a premier integrative health institution that prepares the next generation of healthcare professionals deliver and advance healthcare, offering 11 areas of study. Its clinics and TruNorth Wellness Hub are open to the public to support healthier, better lives for all. Bloomington Clinic specializes in whole-family care, providing chiropractic treatment, acupuncture, Chinese medicine, massage therapy, naturopathic medicine, nutrition, and cupping. Sweere Clinic offers comprehensive care for complex pain conditions and trauma. The Biomechanics Lab and Human Performance Center support proper movement and recovery through gait analysis, rehabilitation, and strength and conditioning.